The church which began on the day of Pentecost is referred to in many ways throughout the Church Epistles (for example, the church is called the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, and the household of God in various places), and each of these terms illustrates a different aspect of its nature. In I Corinthians 3, this same church is called the temple of God.
I Corinthians 3:16
Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?
It is important to note that the you mentioned here is in the plural. In other words, this verse, like the rest of the epistle, is addressed to the believers as a group, not to any individual or individuals. You — the church — is referred to as the temple of God, because the church is indeed God’s true dwelling place.
I Corinthians 3:17
If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.
Here we encounter a major problem. Whatever it is to defile the temple (and we’ll discuss that in a moment), how could it ever be so powerful a work as to cause one to lose eternal life, to lose the spirit, to be destroyed by God?
It can’t. The misunderstanding arises as a result of two unfortunate choices by the translators.
First, the word him (touton) can also be translated this or that, and in this verse, it should be. The subject here is not a man’s eternal fate — if he is born again, his eternal life is already assured. Rather, the subject is the works of that man. Verses 14 and 15 should make the point abundantly clear.
I Corinthians 3:14–15
If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward.
If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.
Clearly, the man of verse 17 will not be affected, but his work will. Rather than being rewarded for it, he will find himself knee-deep in ashes. Second, the words defile and destroy are the same Greek word (phtheiro). This word is translated as both defile and destroy in the King James Version, but it is most commonly translated as corrupt. When something is corrupt, it rots, it deteriorates into uselessness. It has no value.
With this understanding, we see the meaning of this verse: any act of man which would corrupt the temple of God will, in eternity, bring only corruption.
But the question remains, how can one corrupt the temple of God, the Body of Christ, the church? God’s Word informs us that God has tempered the Body together (I Corinthians 12:24). How could any act of man mar this perfect unity?
II Corinthians 11:3
But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ.
The unity of the spirit can never be broken, but what can be corrupted are the minds of the members of the Body of Christ. When this occurs, although that unity is intact, it is no longer kept (Ephesians 4:3), it is no longer experienced, and it is no longer manifested in the world.
What act of man could cause the minds of believers to be corrupted in such a manner?
Colossians 2:20 — 22
Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances,
(Touch not; taste not; handle not;
Which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men?
The word perish here is a form of phtheiro. A more accurate rendering of the first part of verse 22 might be “which all bring corruption by their use.”
What, then, brings corruption into the church? The commandments and doctrines of men. Outward ordinances like “touch not, taste not, handle not.” These are the one great impediment that would hinder believers from enjoying the perfect, flawless unity to which God has brought us in Christ.
No work of ours could have gained us entrance into the Body of Christ; of what use are such works now? We all stood in need of grace, and grace alone gives us our standing. All of us were equal in need; all are now equal in privilege. To endeavor to import some human ordinance into this perfect unity can only result in corruption.
Why would any believer even consider such practices? Verse 23 tells us, although it is somewhat obscure in the King James Version. Perhaps Moffatt’s translation better captures the import of this verse.
They get the name of “wisdom” for their self-imposed devotions, their fasting, And their rigorous discipline of the body, but they are of no value, they simply pamper the flesh!
The flesh — the carnal, old man nature — rejoices in commandments and doctrines of men, for the flesh still longs for some work to do. But, as men and women newly created in Christ, we are instructed to walk in the spirit (Galatians 5:16), no longer catering to the flesh.
For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting.
Those of us who have believed on Jesus Christ have the assurance of future glory, of being saved from wrath, of being forever with the Lord. We have a position of acceptance, access, and righteousness before God that can never be diminished. However, the works that we now choose to do are within our control. We can choose to do that which magnifies His work, or that which distracts from it.
Grace alone! No matter how noble the motive, any work of mine that would promote some additional standard or flesh-based righteousness is a work unto corruption. It is not simply unnecessary — it is another gospel (Galatians 1:6). Such works hold no reward for me, bring no glory to God, and yield only confusion and division in the church.
Let us continue to exhort one another to stand upon, and only upon, the completed work of Christ. Let us revel in grace. Let us take care to see that no work we do, no word we speak, no decision we make would in any way diminish that brilliant glorious display of God’s mercy and kindness which is the church, His temple, the Body of Christ.